hist-games: Encyclopedias and History

Thu Nov 20 14:34:00 PST 1997

   During some private correspondence, I mentioned that I don't trust
Encyclopedias for detailed history (and sometimes wonder about general
history).  Here is an example why...

Starting with a quote from "Comptons" about the history of cards:
> Modern playing cards evolved from what is called the tarot deck. Tarot cards
> originated in Italy as a set of picture cards numbered from 1 to 21 with an
> extra unnumbered fool card, or joker. It is probable that Venetians added 56
> numeral cards to the tarot deck, making the 78-card deck ...
> ...It is from the numbered and face suit cards that the contemporary 52-card
> deck is derived. Eventually the page card was dropped, leaving three face
> cards, the ace, and nine numbered cards in each suit. ...

Here is a quote from "Columbis Concise" about Tarot cards:
> playing cards used mainly for fortune-telling, generally believed to have
> been introduced into Europe by gypsies in the mid-15th cent.

And here is what Grolier has to say about the Tarot:
> The oldest playing cards still in common use--both for card games and as
> the basis of a branch of the fortune-telling art--the tarot was brought
> from the East to Italy in the 14th century by gypsies or returning Crusaders.

   The problem is that none of these are correct.  Perhaps the Columbis Concise
is correct that it is "generally believed", but that does not mean their belief
is true!  I'd hope for a historical answer, rather then repeating popular myth.
Yet, this is where an average person would look if they wanted to know about
the origins of cards.
   For those of you who are not aware of current known facts, cards have been
established in Europe as early as 1370 in Spain, and 1371 in Italy.  A route
from China to India, from India to Persia, and finally into Europe has been
pretty well esablished.  The first accurate description of a playing card deck
comes from 1377 where a 4-suit 52 card pack is described.  Egyptian cards were
also 4 suit 52 cards decks, and appeared to be named after the middle court
card.  This middle card was added (Indian decks only had two court cards), and
early Italian and Spanish names were "corruptions" of this name: "Naipes" or
   The earliest known date for Tarot decks, (or more accuratly card decks with
trump cards) is a fuzzy reference in 1421 (and quite solid by 1444).  Every
indication is that the Italians invented extra trump cards which they added to
the than popular 56 card deck.  By the time the Tarot was invented, cards had
already spread all over Europe (England is a noticable exception, they seem to
have been a bit slow on taking up cards).
   This is an example of why I (and many other people) look at encyclopedias
with distrust.  Sometimes they are an OK starting point, although in the above
examples I would not even go that far, but they don't substitue for detailed
knowledge and research!

Michael McKay  (known in the SCA as Seaan McAy)

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